INTERVIEW

Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy Know Journalism Still Matters

By Bradford William Davis

The Deadline Artists directors discuss their ode to the New York tabloid titans.

Jonathan Alter, Steve McCarthy and John Block — the three directors and producers of Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — are quick to praise New York columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill for paving their careers in nonfiction writing and filmmaking. The two pugnacious, yet compassionate writers represented what the trio believes to be the best of journalism. Alter, McCarthy and Block explain Breslin and Hamill’s impact on their lives, Pete and Jimmy’s dissimilar upbringings, and how they’d like to preserve Breslin and Hamill’s journalistic legacy.

HBO: Do you remember the first time you encountered Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill’s work?

Steve McCarthy: Growing up in Brooklyn, we were a New York Daily News family. My father and uncle were police officers and they — particularly Jimmy — gave cops a hard time, so neither were popular.

Jonathan Alter: When I was 10 years old and living in Chicago, I started reading Breslin’s books. Then, attending college in New York, I started reading them in the Daily News.

John Block: Like Jon, I grew up in Chicago. Mike Royko was the Breslin of our city — this cantankerous columnist that spoke up for the little guy. When I arrived in New York in 1974, I was hungry for that kind of writing, which led me to Breslin and Hamill. They really helped formulate my understanding of the city.

HBO: How did they influence your journalism and nonfiction work?

Steve McCarthy: They were Irish Catholics that were willing to go against their own tribe and be critical of Irish Catholics. I needed to see someone doing journalism with courage, especially about my own people.

Jonathan Alter: They taught me that good columns must be reported. Nobody really wants to read you if you're only pontificating. They also showed me how to use the first person and make a direct connection to your readers. Finally, the two of them were master wordsmiths, and when I’m trying to find what Hamill called the "rhythm of language," it helps to read great writers.

John Block: I was emboldened by their "shoe leather" reporting. You may not like what they say, but you can't help but take notice and pay attention to the details of their story.

Jonathan Alter: They represented the idea of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

HBO: How did you find the right voice for Breslin’s narration?

John Block: I give credit to Jon and Steve. Jon thought to use Michael Rispoli (The Deuce, The Sopranos). I thought having an actor give an impression would be corny, but Steve was very supportive of the idea.

Jonathan Alter: Rispoli was integral to this film’s success. Breslin was too old to read his own work effectively, but the film benefits from hearing Rispoli imitating him in the column excerpts. Lots of people who knew Jimmy well were shocked to learn that wasn't him.

HBO: The film celebrates their massive influence on journalism across the country. What gets lost when newspapers don't have columnists like Breslin and Hamill?

John Block: They had an acute awareness that made you pay attention. They showed you beauty where you forgot to look and showed inequity where you didn't want to look.

Jonathan Alter: They represented an American tradition of urban reporting and column writing. Almost every paper had a Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill wannabe telling their city’s stories. Far more voices are heard in today’s diverse media landscape, and that's important. But I think we've lost platforms for people with the talent to speak for the whole community. Though they were Irish, they didn't just speak for Irish people. The Black columnists we interviewed, Earl Caldwell and Les Payne, as well as Spike Lee, were huge fans of Breslin. We don't need lanes set up where identity strictly determines what you can write.

HBO: Deadline Artists includes a damning account of Breslin's racist and sexist behavior towards his Newsday colleague, Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh.

John Block: Ronnie Eldridge, his wife, called him out on it. So did Gloria Steinem, who was a friend.

Jonathan Alter: Some people would say, "Well, everyone makes mistakes." But we weren't going to let him off the hook for this. However, we also agreed with Pete: Jimmy was complicated. Judging his whole career on one bad mistake is unfair. I'm glad they suspended him instead of firing him. Though it obviously depends on the circumstances, ending someone's career for bad behavior isn't always the right response. I'm glad it didn't end his career because he went on to do some great work.

John Block: I think that Breslin would agree with many of his critics about behavior. But on the balance, he was a good person.

Jonathan Alter: Also, Jimmy grew up in what he described as a "cold" family, one where his mother never showed him any affection. By contrast, Pete's mother loved him and demanded her children not be racist. Their different childhoods manifested throughout their careers. Everybody likes Pete Hamill, but Jimmy had a lot of enemies, in part because he said plenty of unforgivable things. When Jimmy died, Pete said it was "like 30 people left the room."

John Block: I read somewhere that Jimmy once described himself as "dozens of people" at once. Fortunately for us, all of them could write.

HBO: How can we revive Breslin and Hamill's legacy?

Steve McCarthy: We've seen The Washington Post and The New York Times do incredible investigative work, but local newspapers are rapidly closing. Richard Cohen told us “that's where your pocket gets picked.” It's critical that the disruption in the industry gets solved so people can cover what's going on in your life.

Jonathan Alter: Two of the guys in the film, Dan Barry and Jim Dwyer of the Times write with Breslin and Hamill’s spirit and style. There’s also Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. I'm also encouraged by how talented a lot of younger, less famous journalists are. We have the talent, but journalism’s business model can’t subsidize them. Media is in a transitional period. A nonprofit model might be the way to bring some of this back. Even still, there's a real crisis in local news and I believe Deadline Artists will be remembered in part for raising the alarm.